PC Help

A friend of mine was asking for advice on what to look for in a new PC as he's looking to buy, I did a quick no-fuss guide, I thought it might be useful for other people so I've cleaned it up a bit and here it is:

Operating System - Stick with Windows XP, home or pro edition will be fine

CPU - Either Intel or AMD, go for a P4 or an Athlon, the Celeron and Duron Sempron are low-budget versions but won't last as long

RAM - Nothing below 256Mb, 512 ideally, the more the better. RAM is cheap and you can always add more later.

Hard Disk Drive (HDD) - The bigger the better. Depending on what you're doing I doubt you'll fill a 40Gb disk, but size is on the increase all the time and so finding something as small as a 40 will be hard. HDDs are pretty cheap so don't be wowed by big storage figures (big is 200+Gb, anything else is ordinary).

USB ports will allow the connection of most peripherals these days and USB hubs can expand the number of ports you have (up to something like 256, so no worries there). Ideally, look for the option of USB ports on the front as well as the back.

Firewire (aka IEEE 1394) ports are useful, especially for video cameras and external storage. Think of them as like USB ports.

A DVD-ROM drive is a must, a DVD writer (DVD-R/DVD-RW) is nice but not essential unles you want to create DVDs or backup huge amounts of data. DVD drives that have CD writing (CD-RW) capabilities are about the same as standard DVD-ROM drives, useful to have the option to burn CDs.

Make sure you get a reasonable AGP graphics card (128 Mb of onboard memory ideally) and don't rely on any built in to the motherboard (they're slow, weak and steal memory from your RAM).

An on-board sound card is okay, better to have a separate card, especially as they're usually pretty cheap, but this optional unless you want stereo-quality sound.

As for software, personally I'd recommend staying away from Microsoft except for the OS, download free copies of Firefox (web browser) and Thunderbird (email), they're more secure. Also recommended are anti-virus and, if you're online, a firewall (don't trust the MS default, it's wimpy), both of which you should be able to download for free. Also try and get a free copy of a spyware detector (something like AdAware). Also make sure you switch auto-updates on on XP so you get the latest patches for the OS at all times.


  1. Ashley Graham

    On board sound isn't that bad anymore, some motherboards, like an Asus can out-perform some stand-alone sound cards, Creative Labs (and the like) will probably out-perform on board chips for a long time, if not forever. It's a good way to save money, and hassle.

    Purists, and audiophiles, are the ones who can usually tell the difference, not beginners.

    On board is simplification, get the easy stuff, Ethernet, Sound, possibly Graphics (depending on the computer's use) can greately simplify the end-users...well, use.

    Just my two cents...

  2. lee

    Fair points all.

    Onboard components do simplify the buying process. And it there's less problems from conflicts and confusion over which port you should plug your headphones in.

    Unfortunately, onboard cards steal resources from the CPU, usually some RAM (especially in the case of graphics cards) and don't provide any flexibility. I'd be prepared to go with onboard sound and network, to start at least, but never onboard graphics. And considering you can pick up a sound or network card for about £10, it's not exactly saving you the earth.

    Also, let's not forget that most pre-built machines come with the cheapest components they can find. So getting a decent motherboard with decent components may be unlikely.

  3. Ashley Graham

    Oh, I thought (looking back now, you didn't) you said he was going to build it himself. Scratch that then.

    I think that the cheap sound cards use the CPU anyway, like WinModems do/did. Please correct me if I'm wrong, I can't find the (or any) resource to state the same thing right now.

    I never have used the on board graphics; but they're almost standard now, for the Marketing Department to have one more "feature" to throw at us consumers, and sucker the uninitiated into thinking they're saving money.

    I never intended anyone to actually use the on board graphics, I avoid it like the plague, I simply thought it deserved mentioning.

    Just another note, isn't AGP a thing of the past now? I thought everything was becoming PCI-Express (for graphics) or regular ol' PCI (for everything else).

  4. lee

    I know what you mean, the only people I know who use onboard graphics are the corporate clients because they're only showing office stuff and so don't need something that'll render high quality 3D so prefer it all in one neat bundle.

    Last I heard AGP was still top dog, but I admit I haven't bought a graphics card in a while.

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